Symposium Review: “The Uncomfortable Archive”



I attended a New York Archives Week Symposium at the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street on Friday October 16th entitled “The Uncomfortable Archive.” The symposium, co-sponsored by the CJH and the MetLife Foundation, was open to the general public and aimed at bringing together archivists, librarians, museum professionals, scholars, and researchers around the subject of difficult and “dangerous” information in the digital age. Of particular interest to me was the early afternoon program entitled “Uncomfortable Powers: Archiving Dangerous Knowledge,” which promised talks ranging from cloistered Soviet-era archives, presidential records, and Wikileaks.  

Omission and Obfuscation in the Private Soviet Archive

Katherine Tsan presented the first talk, “Omission and Obfuscation in the Private Soviet Archive.”  It was structured around her research into the coded messaging that survived this highly-censored historical epoch.  Tsan outlined the difficulty facing the contemporary archivists responsible for interpreting these incomplete records, which were obfuscated in order to circumvent the draconian provisions of Soviet-era oversight. Archives were state-controlled this way until 1991, meaning abbreviations, incomplete names, and code words were the norm in information files.

Tsan discussed the dual concerns when focusing on Soviet-era projects.  She highlighted the ethical conundrum involved in archiving writings and information that were purposefully celf-sensored. Tsan also discussed the dilemma posed by Putin’s current-day deep-freeze of national archives, which show strong evidence of private citizens blotting out images and cultural memory. Tsan questioned if historical preservation should probe beyond these intentions or approach them from an ostensibly globalist, progressivist slant? Putin’s unwillingness to fund archival activities is in line with Soviet effacement, indicated by the complete lack of KGB archives and the concealment of Russian presidential archives.

Tsan’s talk echoed concepts of power and the archive that we read in Schwartz and Cook’s article Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. They write: “The point is for archivists to (re)search thoroughly for the missing voices, for the complexity of the human or organizational functional activities under study during appraisal, description, or outreach activities, so that archives can acquire and reflect multiple voices, and not, by default, only the voices of the powerful.”1 The near-totalitarian aspects of Soviet rule should be examined in the archival renegotiation of history. However, the key challenge here is how archivists can locate missing voices in a historical period in which they were silenced and redacted? 

Tsan’s talk also recalled Drabinski’s article Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. Drabinski notes that Queer theory also found roots in a postmodernism that challenged the idea that truth could be final.”2 Is there a possibility for a more thoroughly accurate and truthful picture of Soviet Russia given the degree of suppression and censorship prevalent in that era? Or is the fact that so much of Soviet history was censored the truest depiction of its archival history? Would further excavation create a muddled history? These are intriguing questions posed by Tsan’s presentation. 

Watergate, Covfefe, and presidential records

Katherine M. Wisser followed with her presentation, “Watergate, Covfefe, and presidential records.”  Wisser, an Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Archives/History Dual Degree Program at Simmons College in Boston, conducted an entertaining talk which contemplated the implications of presidential records. Presidents Nixon and Trump were Wisser’s primary examples as she grappled with the debate over whether or not presidential records constitute the private personal property of those individuals in office.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 served as Wisser’s primary  point of orientation. She chronicled the various ways in which the executive branch has handled this Congressional decision, which mandates the preservation of Presidential and Vice Presidential records and states public ownership of said records. Various Executive Orders have been issued since the Act’s inception that have variously limited and broadened the scope of the PRA.

Wisser was quick to point out the Trump administration’s valuing of  secrecy over transparency. She highlighted this by discussing Trump’s proclivity for tearing papers to shreds, which has resulted in government officials taping said documents together to avoid egregious violations of the PRA.

SID Today and SID Tomorrow: Releasing an Archive of Leaked Government Documents

The final talk was given by Tayla Cooper, Digital Archivist at The Intercept.  The Intercept is home to the Snowden Archive, which archives the internal newsletter of the NSA’s Signal Intelligence Directive (SID).

According to The Intercept’s website: “SIDtoday is the internal newsletter for the NSA’s most important division, the Signals Intelligence Directorate. After editorial review, The Intercept is releasing nine years’ worth of newsletters in batches, starting with 2003. The agency’s spies explain a surprising amount about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and why.”3 In August 2018 alone, The Intercept published 328 separate documents from a source inside the NSA . These documents covered a range of topics, and summarized “how corporate the agency had become and rallied other frustrated spies to his cause; about the NSA’s environmentally-driven spying; and about some of the virtual private networks the agency cracked into, and why. Other highlights from this release, which covers the first half of 2006, touch on Iranian influence in Iraq, the attitudes of NSA staff toward the countries where they are stationed, and much more.”4

Cooper discussed the labor involved in redacting elements from these documents when sent to the NSA for review. Cooper also talked about  how organizations like The Intercept work to counteract what she described as “surveillant anxiety,” in which no amount of data is ever seen as offering a complete picture of governmental activity. She concluded by stating that this anxiety is something that can not be quelled, a dispiriting endnote that also served as a rallying cry.



  1. Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” 4.
  2. Emily Drabinski, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83, no. 2 (2013): 94-111. doi:10.1086/669547.